ESTUARY flats are top fishing locations for everyone from the beginner to the expert.
Estuary flats can be defined as anything from exposed to semi-exposed low tide sand flats in rivers and creeks to exposed tidal flats on the calm or western sides of Queensland’s big sand islands.
Not all exposed sand or tidal flats attract good numbers of fish. Generally speaking, areas of white rock-hard sand with very little weed or invertebrates burying holes in them are unproductive. They hold no food for the fish nor do they attract fish due to the lack of structure like weed or any bottom variations that change the current flow.
Instead, you want to be looking for sand flats that provide protection and/or hold baitfish for one reason or another. This includes softer, darker sand that holds yabbies or tube and bloodworms if located near ribbon weed or mangrove roots. Target areas should also include sand patches among weed or where the current is being broken by tree branches, patches of rock, melon holes, drains and deeper drop-offs.
Tide and time
Many anglers think high tide is the best time to fish the flats because the most water is on the flats and therefore the most fish. The downside is of course the fish are spread out on high tide, and not only that but in the hour or so on both sides of the tide change the action slows right down for some species. This is particularly the case for whiting, where no run means no fun!
The same is true for whiting at low tide. The only exception to this is when the change of tide coincides with dusk, where they can have a burst of 20-30 minutes of action regardless of the tide. Generally, for whiting and bream I find the best time to target the flats the middle stages of the tide. That is between one hour after low to one hour before high, and vice versa.
The fish will not necessarily have filled up on the run-in tide so might feed on the run-out. My 20-plus years of fishing statistics show that, particularly on the exposed tidal flats of Queensland’s big islands, the fish will follow the drains, channels and patches of melon holes in with the tide, then turn around and move in a similar fashion on the way out.
Flathead though, are another matter, and are generally best targeted in the last two hours of the run-out tide and the first hour or so of the run-in. This will see the fish lying in ambush along the edges of drop-offs, entrances to drains and small channels in the sand where baitfish will be fleeing the flats into deeper water as the tide drops.
They can also be targeted around the ‘patches’ over the top half of the tide. These patches include sand, coffee rock and weed patches along with the edge of the mangroves near the top of the tide. These areas will hold bait out of the current, and thus flathead.
What to look for
These areas are often much easier to spot at low tide. That is, you can see the exposed drains and holes that fill with the tide. You can also spot, especially with a pair of good polarised sunglasses, drop-offs and drains out from the water’s edge. Likewise on the high tide, polarised sunnies are essential, but other indications of a change in structure under the water can be ripples on the water, smooth current lines and small waves breaking around a higher sand spit.
One other thing to look for is discoloured patches of water as the ride runs out. These are a top target area for flathead. Finally, one of the best giveaways of fish nearby are flathead lies in the sand or small indentations in the soft sand caused by whiting or bream feeding. Time and time again I have cast out to the deeper water in front of flathead lies in the dry sand and hooked up.
Once you have found your preferred location, it is a matter of presenting your bait or lure effectively to the fish on the flats. Check out the ‘Tackle Box’ suggestions for what equipment to use. When bait fishing with live worms or yabbies (the best flats baits for whiting and bream), I like to use the cast and retrieve method.
This simply involves throwing the bait out to or just beyond the likely looking area and very slowly winding your reel to present your bait ‘moving’ in the water. This is best achieved with small pieces of red or pink tubing above the hooks to attract the fish to your bait. When it comes to sinker size, use just enough to get into the target area.
I generally only use a 1 or 2 ball sinker on the flats. A big heavy sinker will spook the fish when it lands among the school, and what’s more, when a fish picks up the bait to run with it, it will feel a heavy unnatural weight on the end and drop it. When it comes to throwing plastics for flathead, I like light, thin-gauge jig heads on the flats.
Light jig heads present your bait more naturally in the shallow water. I’ve also noticed the light weights cast just over drop-offs will float down more naturally and be smashed by big fish. These include grunter, trevally, mackerel, queenfish and cod, which can sit at the edge of these flats and drop-offs, especially during a bit of chop or when the water is discoloured and hence provides more protection from bigger predators. If it’s windy, just try to position yourself so you can cast with the wind rather than against it.
What to take
Another consideration when fishing the flats is mobility. When I’m just bait fishing, I can carry all I need in a large shoulder bag. This includes ruler, fish and pouches for water, spare rigs and a small tackle box. I also carry a few snacks in my shirt pockets. If I am fishing for flathead, I will also wear a sling bag that I can swing around to my back when casting, but swivel around to my front when I want to access gear.
In this bag I will carry spare spools of leader, braid scissors, a selection of plastics in their packaging and spare jig heads of various sizes. I will also carry snacks and my portable camera in there. One final addition I will now be carrying is lip gloss. Yes, lip gloss.
I suppose it might come in handy on those windy days to protect chaffed lips, but its real purpose is to remove wind knots. That’s right, remove wind knots. I saw this recently on a video and tried it myself. It works even on big knots in your line!
Check out my Facebook page to see for yourself!
I hope these tips help you enjoy successful flats fishing in the future.
If you’ve got any questions or for more tips and reports, jump on and like/follow my Ontour Fishing Australia Facebook and Instagram pages.
• 10”6 slow action rod
• 500b or 600bc reel or 2000 spinning reel
• 6lb mono line
• 6lb fluorocarbon leader
• Size 4 finesse (thin-gauge) long-shank hooks
• 7 to 7”6 graphite rod
• 1000-2000 spinning reel
• 4-6lb bright-coloured braid
• 10-12lb fluorocarbon leader
• 1/12-3/8oz finesse (light-gauge) jig heads